Instagram Allows Longer Videos in Challenge to YouTube

Posted June 20, 2018 6:30 p.m. EDT
Updated June 20, 2018 6:36 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO — Expanding further beyond its origins as an app for sharing pretty photos, Instagram said Wednesday that it will now allow users to post videos up to an hour long, a feature that will thrust it into direct competition with YouTube and its own parent company.

At an event in San Francisco that was delayed about 45 minutes because of technical issues, Instagram said it was debuting IGTV — a new video section for videos that are shot vertically, which is how people typically record things on smartphones. The company said it would also launch IGTV as its own stand-alone app in the next few weeks.

Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion when the nascent photo-sharing service had only 30 million users. Since then, Instagram has opened up the platform to videos of up to one minute and copied a popular feature of its rival Snapchat by allowing ephemeral posts known as stories.

Instagram said it has 1 billion monthly users. By comparison, Google’s YouTube platform has said it has 1.9 billion users logging into the service every month, and Facebook — which has itself been pushing consumers to spend more time watching videos — has 2.2 billion monthly users.

Instagram made the announcement at a morning event that had the look and feel of a late-night rave.

For nearly an hour, tech industry reporters and social media stars waited in a neon-lit room pulsing with music spun by a live DJ. Food was served with Instagram-worthy presentations, including a do-it-yourself açaí station featuring the on-trend breakfast smoothie bowl, and a toast bar which, naturally, featured avocado toast.

A company spokesman attributed the long delay before the presentation started to “technical difficulties,” and just minutes before Instagram unveiled its push into longer videos, its own blog published the news first.

In many ways, Instagram is what Facebook is not. Instagram is native to smartphones, attracts a younger, thought-to-be cooler audience and is popular among celebrities and influencers — all traits that serve as catnip for advertisers.

The new push from Instagram is an acknowledgment of the changing nature of online video viewing. IGTV will feature videos shot vertically to fill the screens of smartphones versus the landscape orientation of televisions and computer monitors. In addition, it was reaching out to the new stars of today’s digital video world — social media stars with millions of followers on YouTube and Instagram.

Winning over such so-called creators is essential to enticing users to spend more time on video platforms. As younger viewers turn away from traditional television, the stars of YouTube and Instagram are building massive audiences that return for new content daily.

“Video is the way we hang out with friends, the way we pass the time, but the way we watch it is changing,” said Kevin Systrom, Instagram’s chief executive. “Teens might be watching less TV, but they’re watching more creators online.”

Instagram and YouTube are the two main platforms where creators build an audience to make money from advertising, sponsorship deals or merchandise. As Instagram adds longer videos to its platform, YouTube has been adding social-network-like features to allow creators to communicate more easily with fans.

YouTube splits advertising revenue with content creators, something that Instagram does not offer. Systrom said IGTV will not do advertising at first, but he noted that it wants to do what’s “fair” for creators in the future.

Lele Pons, who has 25 million followers on Instagram, took the stage at the event and said she will host a new cooking program for IGTV. At a news conference after the event, Pons said it was hard to predict how the longer video format on Instagram will change the viewing habits of her fans. She said she will continue to split her efforts “50-50” between YouTube and Instagram.

Instagram is also competing against Facebook for the attention of creators. Facebook has been steadily trying to overtake YouTube by expanding its video section with original programming.

Earlier this week, Facebook announced that it would allow video creators to work more directly with the company. It introduced Brand Collabs Manager, a platform to connect video creators with sponsorship opportunities, opening the door for those with popular followings to earn more through advertising revenue.

Whereas Facebook and YouTube are plowing money into buying original content for their video platforms, Systrom said Instagram had no such plans, because it wants to remain “neutral” for creators.

Systrom said Instagram already employs people to monitor inappropriate content, but would add employees because of the longer videos. He declined to say how many people would be added. (YouTube has been plagued by a deluge of troublesome videos that have driven some advertisers from the platform.)